Thursday, June 22, 2006


J. Robert Oppenheimer- A Life
By Abraham Pais and Robert P. Crease

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(Image from J. Robert Oppenheimer- by Hans Bethe)

The eternal question first: is there a need for another Oppenheimer biography? So much about him has been written in the primary and secondary sources, especially in the last few years following his one hundredth birth anniversay, that it seems that nothing could be added to this considerable mountain of literature. But this one is different, because it's written by a man who wrote what many consider to be the definitive biography of Albert Einstein. He knew Einstein well. He was a man who was himself a first rate physicist, who knew and worked with the greatest theoretical physicsts of the century- Dirac, Oppenheimer, Bohr and Feynman to name a few. Most importantly, he was Oppenheimer's neighbour and close colleague for more than twenty years in Princeton. If Abraham Pais chooses to write a book on Robert Oppenheimer, it deserves to be given a serious look.

That said, it's clear that this is not a biography of Oppenheimer as such. David Cassidy and Sherwin & Bird have done the job fairly well. But the phrase "fairly well" itself indicates that even they have not managed to construct the perfect evocation of this enigma. Oppenheimer had probably the most complex personality of any scientist of the twentieth century. It is not just his greatness as a scientist and citizen but his ability to project an image larger than life to the audience, and his ability to inject just enough ambiguity in his behaviour and words to keep people mesmerized and guessing, that still makes him a fascinating personality for a biography.

That is why the Oppenheimer conundrum never dies. What kind of man was he? What exactly was the 'true' Oppenheimer? Can we ever know him? He remains engrossing because the question "What kind of a man was Robert Oppenheimer" always remains very hard to answer. It remains difficult to pass any final judgement on him but because of his stature and personality, one cannot stop wondering (At least I cannot). That's why books continue to be written about him, in an attempt to remove this doubt from the mind of his admirers as well as his critics. Unfortunately, for all his fame and eminence, the father of the atomic bomb was a surprisingly private person all his life. Even a Pais or a Freeman Dyson would be unable to proceed after an extent to unravel his persona. On the other hand, everyone who knew him had their own unique perception of him, and it's instructive for us to try to gain insight into this unique perception, this time through the eyes of Abraham Pais. The book is also a fitting monument to Pais himself, because he unfortunately died midway through the writing.

In the introduction, Pais gives a very fitting analogy to Oppenheimer- people's perception of New York City. He says that there are people who fall in love with the city without really understanding it, and then there are people who hate it, but they too don't understand it. Common to both people is an extreme perception without real understanding. Their gut instinct is justified to some extent, but the object of their adulation or loathing remains ambiguously understood. Such was Oppenheimer. There was the majority, who were dazzled by his mind and erudition. And then there were those who were put off by what they saw as theatrical exaggeration and high-handedness, and who perceived him as an aloof aesthete.

All through his life, people around him perceived Oppie with such an ambivalence. Most people he interacted with in his life, especially his students, were stricken by his dazzling catholicity, his astoundingly versatile and deep interests, and his stunningly fast mind. His students even emulated him. It was especially this last quality that made him such an extraordinary presence. Whether it was science, poetry, politics, or philosophy, he was widely acknowledged to have the uncanny ability to listen to complex problems from various fields, and then criticise and summarize them in a few minutes better than anyone around him could. This is precisely what made him a great leader of the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos. I am always fascinated to read descriptions of him by Nobel Laureates, some of the greatest physicists of the century, that coming from less experienced men would have sounded like hero worship. Even the unflapabble Nobelist Hans Bethe who was not given to exaggeration, said that Oppenheimer was "intellectually superior" to everyone around him. The group of men and women that he collected around him at Los Alamos consisted of the premier scientists of the century; including Bethe, Fermi, Bohr, Feynman, Teller, and a dozen other future Nobel Prize winners. Yet, even among this group of the brightest of the bright stars, Oppenheimer was considered a genius and an extraordinary man. Nobody around him could bring such a versatile, quick, and insightful mind to bear on the thorniest of problems.

This quality of jumping to the right conclusion earlier than anyone else also made him a prophet who saw into the future more presciently than all others. At Los Alamos, while everyone was busy building the bomb, it was Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr who first saw how nuclear weapons could make future wars impossible, but who also saw that ignorance of this fact and lack of safeguards of international controls on atomic energy could pave the way toward catastrophe. Today, when we live with so many problems of atomic energy and nuclear terrorism and proliferation, it is remarkable to see how they were predicted by Oppenheimer, and it is heartbreaking to see how we did not resolve them at an early stage when we could have, until it was too late.

However, this very quality of seeing into the future more insightfully than anyone else and suggesting prudent action also made him powerful enemies in the government who put political benefits above everything else, even national interest. They saw in Oppenheimer a velvet tongued icon who had dangerously influential powers of persuasion. They did not like his arrogance, the studied ambiguity of his words which they thought was high-handed, and his drive to bring transparence into matters of national security. With his quickness of mind, Oppenheimer could lose patience with lesser mortals, and then sting them with biting sarcasm or wit. Needless to say, government officials don't take to such an attitude very kindly, especially when it comes from scientists.

Pais says that the problem with Oppenheimer is unique, and does not have to do with his stature as a physicist. He says that it is easy to write biographies of Einstein and Bohr, arguably the two most eminent physicists of the century, because inspite of their qualities, they were at their core, simple and good men who were liked by almost all. One cannot say anything like that about Oppenheimer. He was a man who had outstanding scientific gifts and achieved great things, yet never lived up to the expectations demanded by the magnitude of those gifts. He was a man who played a pivotal role in many key events, yet all his life, he was steeped in self doubt and unhappiness. And of course, he was a man who was both hated and loved, and misunderstood.
When he was a precocious youngster, he said that he wanted to be "a man who was good at many things, and yet saw the world through a tear-stained countenance". As he must have been aware, he more than achieved this goal.

Pais's book then, is not a full length biography of the father of the atomic bomb (and it should not be judged as being one), but his own perception of the man, based primarily on his own experience with him at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton where Oppenheimer was director for almost twenty years, but also on anecdotes that common colleagues and friends recounted. The book is also peppered with anecdotes and vignettes of other physicists who Pais knew, many of them famous ones in their own right. This makes the book interesting for any historian of physics.
Pais makes it clear that he never hero worshipped Oppenheimer; rather, he saw him as a flawed great man, a tragic hero.

Most of the early chapters of the book are short pieces about Oppenheimer's childhood, his precocity, and his experiences in Europe, where he learnt the revolutionary quantum mechanics from its masters. Pais talks at length about Oppenheimer's role as a teacher and researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, his interests in left wing and liberal politics during depression times, and his personality in those days. As has been frequently recounted by his students, the California days were exceptional experiences for all of them, when their lives were enmeshed with the master's habits and interests, which ranged from French poetry to reading the Gita in the original.

A note about Oppenheimer's research during that period which serves to illustrate his personality: It is widely acknowledged that Oppenheimer was immensely talented and that he did important research. His papers predicting what were later called black holes were considered classics, and some think he would have received a Nobel prize had he lived to see his predictions validated. But many also think that Oppenheimer did not quite live upto the expectation that his gifts demanded, and since then, historians and physicists alike have debated why this was so. Oppenheimer's friend, Nobel Laureate Isidor Rabi who knew him better than anyone else, probably provides the best explanation, namely that Oppenheimer was simply interested in too many things to focus on a single topic. More importantly, Rabi thought that although Oppenheimer was exceptionally confident, he still lacked the audacious nerve to consistently explore the unknown to its utmost extent, a common trait in the most famous scientists. Perhaps this was a result of his mystical and philosophical outlook towards life, indeed a quality which irritated some of his colleagues. As Rabi says, he understood the existing body of physics better than probably anyone else, but at the very frontiers, he hesitated to step into new territory. Interestingly, Rabi thinks that Oppenheimer should have consulted the Talmud rather than the Gita, to gain a more practical perspective on life.
This hesitant attitude also could illustrate his life long quality of self-doubt, which kept him from always going boldly forward. For example, he did not consider his work on black holes to be a major contribution at all. All this could again be attributed to his astoundingly quick mind; the problem was that when presented with a problem or situation, Oppenheimer could instantly grasp not just the strong but also the weak points of that problem, and such an ambivalent view could keep him from striding on with complete nonchalance towards the goal. When you are doing research, it is best not to be informed of the drawbacks of your approach or of the field right at the beginning, because then you might lose faith and not give the endeavor your best. Because of his insight, Oppenheimer often understood the drawbacks of a field to his own detriment. His cynicism about quantum electrodynamics is a good example.

In Pais's opinion, Oppenheimer's most important professional contribution was the creation of his school of modern theoretical physics, which was the first and the best such school in the United States. He brought the European style and standards of research to America, and set the standard for many other such schools after his own. Because of his style, interests, and charismatic personality, he influenced many generations of students who carried his style with them to their universities in turn. Almost every top theoretical physicist who was educated in the US in the 1930s either did his PhD. or postdoc with Oppenheimer. Pais thinks highly of Oppenheimer's work during this time.

Pais does not talk much about the most important part of Oppenheimer's life- his time as director of the atomic bomb project. This is understandable; firstly, this story has been told in many places quite eloquently (the all-time top of the list being Rhodes's The Making of the Atomic Bomb). Secondly, Pais focuses on his personal interactions with Oppenheimer which might provide insight; he was not in the United States and at Los Alamos during the war, and in fact did not know Oppenheimer then (In fact, he barely escaped going to the Nazi extermination camps- check link).

After the war, Oppenheimer emerged as the top government scientist and advisor in the United States and became a household name, probably the most famous scientist in the world after Einstein. After Nazism, Communism was the next major threat to the US. But Oppenheimer realised that this was not the time to adopt an overly hawkish attitude. The major point was that the US should preserve its monopoly on atomic weapons by insisting on test bans and implementing an international system of control. He tried hard through the Atomic Energy Commission to instill this spirit in the government. Belligerent anti-Soviet army and government officials found such a reconciliatory stance unacceptable. The air force wanted nuclear weapons in its own custody, and was preparing for nuclear war. Paranoia began sweeping the nation, and Senator Joseph McCarthy found this paranoia a fertile atmosphere to engender hatred and deep fear of Americans with Communist leanings. When the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb in August 1949, influential scientists in the government began to push Truman for authorizing a crash program for a hydrogen bomb, even though it was based on an idealistic model. Oppenheimer's committee opposed the program on the basis of technical and moral grounds, but mainly technical ones. At that time, the US had a 200:1 advantage in nuclear weapons. Initiating hyrogen bomb development would only accelerate a dangerous arms race. As Oppenheimer presciently saw, the US could not hope to obtain any advantage after both it and the Soviets had built a certain number of nuclear weapons. As he put it in his typically succint manner, "Our twenty thousandth bomb would not, in any deep strategic sense, offset their two thousandth one". Put even more simply, both twenty thousand as well as two thousand bombs are enough for deterrence as well as destruction, and so the US would not have an advantage at that point. But while the US had two hundred and the Soviets had just one weapon, the US had a distinct advantage which it could retain only if it stopped further weapons development, including the hydrogen bomb and nuclear testing, so that it could force the other side to do the same.

Unfortunately, hawks in the government saw it differently. For them, the only answer to nuclear testing was more nuclear testing, no matter that it did not give your side much benefit at this early stage, while providing handsome returns for the other side. More importantly, these hawks saw Oppenheimer as a dangerous man whose undue influence was endangering national security (quite ironical, considering that it was their fiercely bellicose attitude that was doing this). The new Republican government was also prone to be less tolerant of liberals. The Communist scare provided a very conducive atmosphere to these men, including physicist Edward Teller, to contemplate ousting Oppenheimer from his position of power. Foremost among these was Lewis Strauss, an influential banker and member of the Atomic Energy Commission, who had Eisenhower's ears.

Unfortunately, Oppenheimer's past came to haunt him. In 1943, while he was being questioned for the atomic bomb project, he had equivocated about a friend's Communist associations. The FBI and Strauss pounced upon this information and used it to smear his character, in spite of the fact that the FBI had had this information in its possesion for ten years and still had not thought it to be inflammatory enough for denying the physicist his security clearance. This information, coupled with Oppenheimer's past leftist leanings (although he was never a member of the Communist party himself) gave them an opportunity to declare Oppenheimer a security risk and demand either his resignation, or a trial in which his loyalty would be questioned.

Sadly, Pais passed away before the section covering Oppenheimer's trial, and the rest of the book is written, equally eloquently (more eloquently actually), by Robert Crease, who has penned the excellent The Second Creation.

Oppenheimer's trial is a classic and enduring example of how the government suppreses dissent and freedom of expression under the pretext of protecting national security. In case of Oppenheimer, the trial was pitted against him in almost every aspect. Almost all the proceedings were unfair and biased. Most importantly, information from wiretaps in Oppenheimer's house and phone was available to the prosecution, which he and his attorney never saw before or then. Whenever a delicate matter came up, it was declared to be classified and his attorney was asked to leave the room. In the absence of vital information to which he had no access, the usually eloquent and sharp tongued Oppenheimer became tongue tied and hesitant in the face of relentless cross questioning which repeatedly led him to contradict himself. It is a harrowing reminder of those times that under any other circumstances, such a skewed trial based on information obtained illegally would not have been allowed. In any case, the evil machinations of Strauss and his associates worked; although no information was found that would actually declare Oppenheimer as disloyal, he was branded as a security risk, and his clearance was suspended indefinitely. Strauss also did not want Oppenheimer to become a martyr, and the trial was rigged up to expose him as a flawed and morally inconsistent character. I am quite sure that now, after all the information has been declassified, we view Oppenheimer as being more of a martyr than Lewis Strauss would ever have liked.

The interesting point is that Crease and some other historians (notably Priscilla McMillan) have brought up Oppenheimer's case as an analogy of what is in danger of happening today in the United States. Just like then, freedom is being suppresed in the name of national security and 'patriotism'. This can include almost anything said which does not conform to 'official policy'.
In Oppenheimer's case, his past soul searching and interest in communism was abused and used against him in a pernicious manner. It did not matter that in the 1930s, communism was scarcely viewed as an evil philosophy. The depression at least temporarily had trampled many people's faith in the current system, and many many intellectuals in that period got interested in left wandering and communist philosophy. In spite of this, Oppenheimer was never a card carrying communist, and in fact quickly became disillusioned with communism in the late 30s, when he heard about Stalin's purges and his brutal suppresion of dissent. During the war, he was the director of the government laboratory that produced the weapon that ended the war, and after the war, he was as much against communism as any other patriotic American. The fact that his past associations could be used against him in spite of all these facts illustrates to just what extent the government can create an atmosphere of fear and distrust, and then use it in the most outrageous and justified manner to indict someone of just about any crime.
Just like then, covertly obtained information can be used today to implicate someone and bias his trial. We don't know if and to what extent this is actually happening, but all the elements are there, including the hyped up atmopshere of terrorism, and the Oppenheimer case provides a vivid reminder of what the results can be. I concur. We must always remember what Edmund Murrow quite simply said- "Dissent should not be equated with disloyalty"

Pais has an interesting piece on Oppenheimer's language. Many of his associates have acknowledged that Oppenheimer had the best command over language of anyone they had ever come across. He was a man of many tongues, and had a natural flair for diction and foreign languages. His knowledge about the humanities and arts was astoundingly wide as well as deep, and he could augment his arguments with reference to the great works of poetry, literature, history and philosophy. His speech was flawless and effortless. His students say that he was the only man they had met, who actually spoke in complete sentences. Everyone who heard him was mesmerised by his words.
Yet, Pais says that Oppenheimer's speeches, though eloquent, never made the subject matter completely clear. Many times, this was deliberate, and he would utter one of his Delphic utterances borrowed from some historical or obscure source that would keep the listener guessing. But Pais also thinks that Oppenheimer translated the ambiguity in his thought to the ambiguity in his speech.
I have read Oppenheimer's talks transcribed into books, and I agree with Pais. While the overall experience leaves you quite fascinated, while the sentence constructions are simple and yet unlike anything you have ever seen, in the end, you are not quite satisfied or have not quite understood what he exactly wants to say. However, Pais thinks that this is precisely the reason why Oppenheimer's ambiguity makes his words insightful- because each reader or listener can interpret them the way he wants. On technical matters though, there is no doubt that Oppenheimer would beautifully sum up something in a few words, what others would take a few paragraphs for. The sheer economy and effectiveness of his words is brilliant. He even invented his own phrases- "inspiriting" is an Oppenheimerism that infected Pais in his writing.

After his trial, Oppenheimer retreated to a simpler way of life. Narrations of his tenure as director of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study are the high points of Pais's book, because Pais got to observe Oppenheimer almost on a daily basis. Pais quite vividly describes Oppenheimer's personality in dealing with the institute. As had always been his nature, he could be unduly considerate and cuttingly indifferent or abrasive in turns. But he always communicated to those around him, an extraordinary sense of the age of science and world affairs that they were living in. At Princeton, he ran an institute that featured the greatest mathematicians and physicists of the century, including John von Neumann, Kurt Godel, Freeman Dyson, Oscar Morgenstern, and Einstein himself. He turned the institute into a mecca of theoretical physics, and instituted fellowships for bright young people from all over the world. He tried to bring natural and social scientists together. He gave discourses on physics, and on the relation of science to society. He was highly revered as the quintessential scientist-citizen and philosopher. To the end of his life, he continued to explore the dilemma of man and the forces which he can harness, and their potential for good and bad.

Pais has written a compassionate book that gives many insights into this complex man's character that have not been revealed in other places. Still, one can never get the wholesome feeling that he has understood Oppenheimer. He was a man who was tormented by his actions, yet orchestrated world shattering events. He was a man on whom ambivalence was writ large: he had great scientific gifts and yet did not fulfil their complete potential (in fact, Pais thinks that this was really his greatest tragedy which he felt deeply), he had high integrity and compassion, yet equivocated about moral decisions, he was exceedingly influential in government circles, yet could not have the shrewd acumen that impresses power brokers (and it was better that he did not in fact have it). He was a man who saw into the future better than anyone else, and predicted the permanent problems that the discovery of atomic energy and its military applications would breed, including many current dilemmas. And he saw the solutions to those problems crumbling before his eyes because of government misunderstandings and interests. Those who knew him, whether they admired him or despised him, all agreed that he was an exceptional man.
That he was one of the most brilliant men of the century is irrefutable, possesing a wide ranging brilliance seldom seen in history. As one of his students best put it, "This man was unbelievable. He always gave you the answer before you had time to formulate the question".
Pais paints a balanced portrait of this complex man who lived in complex times.

I can honestly say that I have read every biography of Oppenheimer published so far, as well as most of the secondary reference material on him. I doubt that any unusually interesting book on him can be published after this, partly because almost all that can be dug up about him has been dug up, and partly because almost all of his associates and students are now dead.

But Robert Oppenheimer will always remain an enigma. I believe that it's because the public (including me) is always fascinated by flawed heroes rather than perfect ones. It's the apparent oxymoron of the phrase that begs explanation and perpetually draws us to such characters. We are always more fascinated by people who climbed the summit of power and toppled from it, either due to their own or others' orchestrations, than people who have stayed at the summit of power. For us, it's always the men who were contradictions, who had opposing qualities, who engaged in complementary actions in their life, who hold sway. In Oppenheimer's case, the legend lives on and the questions endure particularly because he was so brilliant and could have consistently achieved greatness, yet fell short of it in some respects.
Because of the times he lived in, his unique personality and gifts and his actions, he will always stand as being emblematic of the dilemma of the use of science, and indeed of the existence with technology that we share. He was the figurehead of the political and social side of science...and its first casualty. His life illustrates a number of trends, and he was the prime participant in many of them; the development of 'big science' in the United States including the founding of modern theoretical physics, the harnessing of science for human conflict, the role of science in politics and society, the conflict of science and morality, the role of government in scientific matters and vice versa, and the problems created by the application of science to practical affairs. Oppenheimer is really an enigma because he represents all of these issues, and these issues themselves are enigmas, that will remain enigmatic until we continue to think and act in this world. As Pais said, taken together with the times he lived in, J. Robert Oppenheimer was without a doubt one of the most remarkable human beings of the twentieth century, and we are all living in his legacy.


Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

Very nicely written review indeed. You must certainly be the most knowledgable asian ever about all things Oppenheimer! It amazes me that along with your research you manage to find time to read these fascinating books and write eloquent reviews about them. How do you pull that off?

9:45 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

I pull that off by not spending time doing research!! Which I really need to now!

2:13 PM  
Blogger Saket said...

Brilliant stuff. You should write Oppenheimer's next biography. I bet you have read Oppenheimer's Bhagvad Gita. I learnt a lot about it through that one article.

4:21 PM  

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